Bulls

Who will be the NBA's surprise team in 2010-11?

Who will be the NBA's surprise team in 2010-11?

Friday, Sept. 24, 2010
10:35 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.

16. Who will be the league's surprise team and which team will be the most disappointing?

The Sacramento Kings aren't the Oklahoma City Thunder. Tyreke Evans isn't Kevin Durant. And while it's improbable the Kings make the drastic leap their fellow young-gun Thunder did last season, it shouldn't be completely unexpected that they are a much improved squad in the 2010-11.

There are some other choices to make some positive headway in comparison to their dismal 2009-10 campaigns--Washington, if Gilbert Arenas resembles his old self and meshes with top pick John Wall and the rest of the Wizards' young talent; New Orleans, with a healthy Chris Paul, new coaching staff, front office and some underrated offseason additions; Philadelphia, with veteran head coach Doug Collins, a new regime calling the shots and a versatile and youthful Sixers roster; New Jersey or whatever team ends up with Carmelo Anthony--but Sacramento is more of a sure bet.

Evans, the reigning Rookie of the Year, has a chance to eventually become a superstar in the league. His powerful 6-foot-6 frame, the versatility to play all three perimeter positions (although he's best with the ball in his hands), incredible scoring instincts and a lot of room for improvement all indicate stardom. Most impressive, however, is how he injected a semblance of hope to a team that had been floundering since their halcyon days last decade, when Chris Webber and company had them in contention on an annual basis.

It's far from a one-man gang in "Sac-Town," as Evans is only the centerpiece of the organization's youth movement. Power forwards Jason Thompson and Carl Landry (the latter was acquired last season in a deal that sent former Kings leading scorer to Houston) have complementary games, as Thompson is a more of a face-up, finesse player with size and length, while the undersized Landry possesses a physical mentality. Young wings Donte Greene and Omri Casspi are both long, athletic and active types. Greene has displayed flashes of potential with his shooting range and athleticism, but has lacked consistency, and Casspi, a native of Israel, was one of the better rookies in the first half of last season before struggling a bit down the stretch.

Paired with Evans in the backcourt is the solid and underrated Beno Udrih, who offers a safety net similar to what former Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich provided Derrick Rose early in his career. Oft-injured swingman Francisco Garcia provides long-range shooting, while free-agent acquisition Antoine Wright adds some experience and toughness on the defensive end.

One of the more overlooked offseason moves was Sacramento's swap with Philadelphia, in which the Kings swapped big man Spencer Hawes and former Bull Andres Nocioni for shot-blocking center Samuel Dalembert. Hawes simply wasn't panning out as expected and "Noce" appears to be in the twilight of his career, and Dalembert--whose contract expires after this season, giving Sacramento some flexibility going into next summer--fills a real need for his new team with his defense and rebounding.

But perhaps the biggest stride Sacramento took this offseason occurred back in June, when they selected Kentucky big man DeMarcus Cousins with the fifth overall pick and Marshall big man Hassan Whiteside in the second round. Both players were considered steals, but their pre-draft stock dropped for reasons that concerned some observers.

Cousins teamed up with the aforementioned Wall during their lone college season, but was hardly in his shadow. However, unfounded doubts about his character and work ethic plagued him, and his perceived adversarial stance toward the media didn't help. Regardless, Cousins' combination of size, strength, shooting touch, footwork, rebounding and passing ability--he's viewed as having Derrick Coleman-like qualities, in both a positive and negative sense--made his selection a no-brainer, something confirmed by a strong summer-league performance in Las Vegas, at which fellow youngsters Evans, Thompson and Landry were in attendance to provide encouragement and build camaraderie. It wouldn't be a shock to see the Alabama native contend for Rookie of the Year.

Whiteside, on the other hand, is considered much more of a project. Unlike Cousins, he didn't play in the spotlight in college (or even high school, for that matter) and although he put up gaudy stats during his freshman campaign, his maturity was questioned to the point that he went from being a potential late-lottery pick all the way to the second round. While he needs to add weight and adjust to the level of competition, his long-term potential as an athletic shot-blocking phenom with uncanny quickness and range on offense (he's been compared to a young Marcus Camby) is worth the gamble.

Sacramento's collection of young talent--the 29-year-old Dalembert is their oldest projected rotation player; Wright, Garcia and Udrih are the only other players who have played at least five seasons in the league--make it unlikely that they'll make the postseason in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. This is a team, however, that jumped out to a hot start last season--Bulls fans may remember their 35-point comeback win last December at the United Center--before being beset by injuries and the inconsistency of youth. But with a such a talented young core (hopefully any immaturity issues will be mitigated by being in sleepy Sacramento), Kings coach Paul Westphal's up-tempo approach and the example of the Durant-led Thunder as inspiration, the potential is there to be a spoiler--not just in the future, but right now.

In terms of disappointments, a handful of teams stick out as obvious candidates. In the wake of Amar'e Stoudemire's departure, Phoenix could struggle. Speaking of Stoudemire, the Knicks might not be as formidable as some think, even with players better suited for Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun style. Memphis, after a better-than-expected 2009-10 season, re-signed swingman Rudy Gay to a huge extension, but otherwise didn't make many significant offseason upgrades.

The Charlotte Bobcats, though, are a team on the verge of a true letdown. Following the franchise's first-ever postseason appearance, starting center Tyson Chandler was dealt to Dallas and starting point guard Raymond Felton signed with New York. Not exactly the recipe for success.

Forward Gerald Wallace, the face of the franchise, made his first All-Star appearance, but "Crash" isn't regarded as a true go-to guy. Stephen Jackson enjoyed a renaissance of sorts after being traded from Golden State early last season, but it's a well-known fact that Jackson doesn't necessarily deal with losing situations well. That pair, however, should be the least of Larry Brown's concerns.

Young backup point guard D.J. Augustin will have the first opportunity to replace Felton as the starter--unless rumors of New Jersey's Devin Harris being shipped to Charlotte as part of a proposed four-team deal for Carmelo Anthony, turn out to be substantiated; Augustin could be traded to the Nets in that scenario--while former Illinois prep star Shaun Livingston parlayed a solid comeback season in Washington into a free-agent deal in Charlotte. Erick Dampier, who came to Charlotte in return for Chandler, was recently waived by the Bobcats (Dampier is currently sifting between potential offers from Miami and Houston, among other teams), leaving Chicago native Nazr Mohammed as the likely starter at center, with free-agent acquisition Kwame Brown--in an ironic reunion with Bobcats owner and Bulls legend Michael Jordan, who selected Brown with the first overall pick for Washington back in 2001--as the primary backup. Boris Diaw--also rumored to be in the potential Anthony deal; the Frenchman would be shipped to Utah--has been somewhat underwhelming as Charlotte's starting power forward, where he shares time with former Bull Tyrus Thomas, the recipient of an extension this summer.

Even if Charlotte's starters are considered serviceable (the addition of Harris would certainly be an upgrade), the bench is full of question marks. Youngsters like Gerald Henderson, Derrick Brown and Chicago native Sherron Collins are basically unproven, while the likes of shooter Matt Carroll, forward Dominic McGuire, center DeSagana Diop and veteran Eduardo Najera don't strike fear into the hearts of the opposition.

Last year's Bobcats team was successful because of a focus on defense, sharing the ball and buying into Brown's coaching philosophy. But the NBA is a game where talent often prevails and Charlotte simply doesn't have enough of it. Not only will the Bobcats struggle to meet raised expectations, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if the mercurial Brown decides not to ride out the storm.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”